Archive for category: Uncategorized

The Economist: Academia ranked last as source of innovative ideas and my thoughts on startups vs grant money

January 8th, 2009 by jose

The Economist has a special report on innovation. Their report is spearheaded by a bar graph (sorry, cannot link to it and cannot repost here due to copyright laws) showing results from IBM (The global CEO study 2006), based on interviews with 765 CEOs. The graph shows that the last two sources of innovation are the academia and the R&D departments of corporations (!). The top sources of new ideas according to that study are employees, business partners, and customers. These data helps explain the current craze about start-ups. R&D departments within companies, and labs within universities are expensive. :) The latter has the excuse that you could have been doing basic research all this time and that is why nothing you  produced was of any use for innovation… But still. Startups can have access to the three top sources of innovative ideas (employees, business partners and customers) on the cheap. No wonder there are so many of these popping out.

We have posted before on how academics are not ‘in it’ for the money. If anyone has doubts, just (re)read Phillip Greenspun fantastic essay ‘women in science’. But then there must be something ‘romantic’ about doing science.


“Writing style” vs. “content”: Watson & Crick’s example

November 5th, 2008 by jose
Figure 2. Diagramatic representation of the ke...

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Recently I attended a scientific writing workshop by Rona Urau and Susannah Goss here at MPI, Berlin.

Plenty of interesting stuff that I’d like to share here. I was under the impression that style doesn’t matter all that much; but the workshop changed my mind. And there is a paper that uses Watson    and Crick’s famous Nature paper as an example of how much style matters. There was a key paper on the same ideas by Avery et al. that was completely eclipsed by the success of Watson    and Crick’s. The key difference? Style and rethoric.

Watson    and Crick  were  extremely  concise;  their paper is only about 900 words long. Avery  et  al.  were  verbose;  their paper  is  about  7,500  words  long. They also were persuasive and used first-person statements (Avery et al. used "the authors"). They stated the importance of their work on the first paragraph, while Avery et al. never made any claims about the importance of their work.

From Urau and Goss’ materials:

And any of you still wondering how attention to stylistic aspects can help get your work published may be interested in the following statistic: "Inadequate writing can slow or prevent publication of scientific research. According to an editor of Evolution for example, poor writing is almost as frequent a reason for rejecting a manuscript as is flawed experimental design or analysis; nearly 50% of rejected papers are so poorly written that reviewers and editors cannot understand the experimental design, analysis, or interpretation (Endler 1992). My informal survey of editors of other biological journals suggests that this percentage is typical." (Moore, R. [1994]. Writing as a tool for learning biology. BioScience 44, 613-617.)


Avery, O.T. , C.M. MacLeod, and M. McCarty.  1944.  Studies on the chemical nature of the substance inducing  transformation  of  pneumococcal  types.  Journal  of  Experimental  Medicine  79:  137-158. 

Watson,  J.D.  and  F.H.C.  Crick.    1953.    Molecular  structure  of  nucleic  acids:  a  structure for deoxyribose nucleic
acid.” Nature 171: 737-738.

100+ Places to Find Funding For Your Research | OEDb

July 24th, 2008 by jose

The people at the Online education database have put together a list of resources for academics to get funding. While most of the usual suspects are there, you may find new options. It’s US-centric, so if you are outside the US you may not find it as appealing. It’d be nice if someone could put together a list like this for other locations
100+ Places to Find Funding For Your Research | OEDb

A centralized repository for academic journals: it’d need to borrow credibility from those established in the field

July 21st, 2008 by jose

Today I found a comment (again in hacker news!) that is very relevant to the discussion we are having here. I’m going to repost it, but credit goes to the author mlinsey. We have discussed in the past how soft peer review could change the landscape in science. The original model of peer review worked well when there were few submissions to journals and people communicated by snail mail, but it’s getting crazy for our current environment. Dario proposed an alternative, and mlinsey presents a similar one, maybe even more radical. Enjoy.

The whole journal system itself is broken. My university’s Math & CS library dropped its subscriptions to several journals a few years ago because they cost too much. Even though they picked the least important/prestigious journals, at one of the top CS departments in the country, this should not happen. And this is to say nothing of a lone individual who wants to benefit from research and teach himself some of it. They can hardly pay to subscribe to any of these journals.

And think about what a journal provides: a forum for researchers to submit the results of their research and a mechanism for selecting which of the submissions are worthwhile for folks in the field to know about.

What I just described is essentially just a karma system, albeit you would have to find a way to take the credibility of the rater into serious consideration. Assuming you solved the chicken-and-egg problem of getting enough credible people from academia to be raters and to submit their best work to your site (quite a tough problem considering many large universities are much more like big companies, or worse government bureaucracies, than startups), you could totally replace the entire system of academic journals.

Think of all the other free extras you would get by having a web app host all journal articles: at minimum, the process of citing references and looking at the background of a paper could be improved: you could visually trace the findings of the paper you’re looking at all the way back to the founding of the field by what each of it’s references used as references. Search would be a lot better, as would recommendation engines (lots of professors have grad students waste time simply scanning journals for articles that are relevant for their work). If you’re into NLP than you would have a much better dataset and a clear application for doing summarization. And think about the possibilities of social networking or productivity-app type features enabling all sorts of new possibilities for collaboration among people at different universities!

But the real big play is that once you do all this, you’re well on your way to replacing universities themselves, which any undergraduate can tell you are bloated enterprises which spend large amounts of money and pass the costs onto their customers, who accept it because the university system has a monopoly on giving out credentials for people going into the working world.

One of universities main products is research, and in many fields (biology, physics) you need the big backing of university (and government) dollars to support research. In many other fields (math, Computer Science, philosophy) you don’t. Researchers in these fields usually need to somehow pay their living expenses, and the actual equipment expenses are minimal. They mainly need: -a place to find like-minded collaborators -credibility for their work (ie, ability to publish in journals). You could give them both of those things. Now people in these fields wouldn’t even need to choose the career path of grad school and then professorship (in other words, staying their entire life in the university monopoly) in order to contribute their research to humanity’s body of knowledge.

So in other words, what you need is to build a HN/Reddit style voting/peer review system that weights the credibility of the voter heavily. Then you need to find some early adopters who are credible enough to lend your own site credibility. Then you could be well on your way to reinventing the academy in a way that is much more democratic and makes its results much more widely available and usable by the public.

Anyone want to build this? My email address is in my profile. Or just go ahead and use this idea yourself – I just really want to be able to use this service somehow, though probably more as a consumer than a producer of research. Maybe someone who actually went to grad school and had lots of papers published themselves would be in a better position to build this idea.

Learning the COLEMAK keyboard layout

July 20th, 2008 by jose

I have determined I want to learn the COLEMAK keyboard layout. The point? It’s not about typing speed. The layout requires far less wrist motion than qwerty, and it feels very confortable. You can see that your hands are not moving much (the author claims that your hands travel 2.2 times more on QWERTY).

IF you spend most of your time using your keyboard (and if you are an academic, chances are you do), this one-time investment of your time might be worth it. We only have a set of hands for life, and if you imagine all the papers you should write in a lifetime stacked, you’ll feel the immediate urge to protect your hands :) .

I’m not a touch typist on QWERTY, and wanted to learn touch typing, so I decided to go with COLEMAK instead.

It seems that you can only learn for about an hour and a half a day, and thus it will take a month before you can do any work at all. Some people have tried to go cold-turkey, but I have to get actual work done. If you peruse the forums, there are people posting detailed reports on their experiences.

There are lessons available in the website; one is supposed to go through them till reaching 96% accuracy or more. They recommend against relabeling or reorganizing the keys. Instead, the way to go seems to be to tape a copy of the layout on your monitor, like this:

BTW, If you suffer from back pain I have friends who swear by .

I’ll post more on how things go for me on the new layout. The good thing is that it’s not an all-or-none change: I can still do QWERTY when I have to get something done under a deadline.